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Umoja Health's Pop-Up Clinics Prove That Home Is Where The Healing Is

Umoja Health Banner
David Exumé
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A banner for Umoja Health's pop-up site.

It’s a breezy Saturday morning at the pop-up clinic in the parking lot of Paradise Baptist Church in Oakland. It’s a simple set-up: a few tents, audio speakers for music, and some plastic chairs. People line up on the sidewalk, and volunteers in black hoodies are buzzing around under the tents.

Minnie, who is 57 years old, just got her second vaccine dose. “I just found out my cousin is a hairstylist, so I think they know the first lady of the church, Jackie. I think that's her name," she says. "So when she called and told me, I said 'I'm going!' Because I'm a foster parent, and I have two disabled boys."

outside PBC.jpeg
Kevin Epps
People line up in front of an Umoja Health pop-up vaccination site at Paradise Baptist Church in Oakland.

Minnie lives in an Oakland neighborhood she calls the Dag, and she’s pleased with this event. "They did perfectly well. I don't know what the young man’s name is back there, the guy with the great baseball cap, standing in front of his desk. Very helpful."

This is a pop-up clinic, but it feels more like a neighborhood kickback. There’s even a DJ, a tall volunteer tapping away on a laptop. His name is Ghila Andemeskel. He’s a researcher and health educator at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), as well as a North Oakland native.

"I spin a mix of doo wop soul, some blues," Andemeskel says. "I try to throw back a little, since for vaccinations we do have an older population. [I] make sure that they feel safe, [and have music] that they can recognize and move to. Keeps it upbeat."

People usually stay long after their 15 minutes of post-vaccination observation period is up. Demar, who lives in Oakland, is basking in the Saturday sunshine, carrying a lion’s head cane and a Louis Vuitton mask.

"I'll be hanging out, you know, listening to good music. You know, you can't go wrong when people playing good music," he says with a laugh.

And that’s by design. The organizers — DJ Ghila Andemeskel included — are part of a coalition called Umoja Health. It’s a network of about 30 local groups addressing the Black community’s COVID-related needs. Andemeskel says it starts with understanding the neighborhood.

"Come to the Tuesday community meetings," he says. "That's where the community gives us feedback."

"We’re actually using the words 'culturally congruent' or 'culture humility.' Because, if you think about it, you can't be competent in somebody’s culture, right? But you can empathize with it. You can have sympathy."
Ghila Andemeskel

A large part of their approach is focused on what the medical world calls "cultural competency" — the ability to understand and interact with cultures that are different from your own.

"We’re actually using the words 'culturally congruent' or 'culture humility,'" Andemeskel says. "Because if you think about it, you can't be competent in somebody’s culture, right? But you can empathize with it. You can have sympathy."

Umoja Health line
Kevin Epps
The check-in line at Umoja Health's pop-up clinic.

"And if you're not us, if you don't understand the culture, then create space," he continues. "Don't come in here and tell us what we need. Ask us what we need, and see who could facilitate that from our own community.”

Dr. Kim Rhoads is the director of Umoja Health and the brains behind this initiative. She’s an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UCSF, where she also works in community engagement.

"I continue to say: We are still unapologetically Black-focused," she says. "We will serve people who show up, whether or not they're African-American. But our goal is to get African-Americans these resources."

Dr. Rhoads stresses that reaching these people doesn’t come from people in lab coats. It comes from people that know them. She expanded this concept from San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood across the Bay to Oakland.

"UCSF was asked to come over to address Fruitvale, because at the time, they had the highest rate of positivity in the country," she says.

"I remember calling my boss. I said, 'I feel like I'm inconveniencing some people by saying that this is what I want to do – the pop-up method. Because that's the only way we're really going to make sure.'"

Dr. Rhoads continues, "and I told the group, 'I want 80% of what we're doing to go to African-American people.' Nobody says that, and nobody does that."

Local residents like Minnie, are glad this pop-up clinic is in their neighborhood.

"We are still unapologetically Black-focused."
Dr. Kim Rhoads

“You gotta bring it here. And there's no way around it, because we're not going nowhere,” Minnie says. “And believe it or not, I'm surprised at the turnout. Don't nobody know about this.”

Pastor Leon McDaniels, Sr. says Paradise Baptist Church is the spot everyone in The Dag trusts.

“People feel a lot safer knowing that my church, or, at least, a church in [their] community is hosting this,” he says. “They can come here, feel safe, and even have a little something that reminds [them of their] culture. Notice the kind of music we’re playing. It’s intentional."

And outsiders often don’t realize that this isn’t a space for them.

Dr. Rhoads says, “They come to neighborhoods they would never be caught dead in otherwise to get a vaccine, and are willing to take it from the hands of the have-nots, if you will."

She adds, "[people say] 'Oh, it's vaccine hesitancy! That's why the rates are low!' No. It's because people who live in Marin are willing to drive to 94621. To stay in their car, windows rolled up, to get a vaccine that was put there to serve the African-American community."

That drastically hurts locals' chances of getting medical attention in the neighborhood they grew up in.

Oakland resident Demar says, “I will tell you: we don't have them in minority Black communities anymore. You don't have the health center. You don't have a rec center. You don't have anywhere for kids to go to get either medical treatment or just recreation.”

"[People say] 'Oh, it's vaccine hesitancy! That's why the rates are low!' No. It's because people who live in Marin are willing to drive to 94621. To stay in their car, windows rolled up, to get a vaccine that was put there to serve the African-American community."
Dr. Kim Rhoads

Dr. Rhoads says health workers need to understand the realities of the communities they serve. She tells this story:

“One of our partners from Sunnydale - who I came to really love so much, just in his demeanor and the love that he has for his community – he came to our Bayview site. But he would not get tested there. He did not want to have his picture taken there."

And he followed us as we went to Oakland, because he's got people in East Oakland. He drove by our first pop-up in East Oakland. And I said, 'Hey, do you want a T-shirt?'

And he looks at it, and then he goes, 'Nah.'

I'm like, 'It's because it says the town, isn't it?'

And he was like, 'Yeah.'"

Umoja’s volunteers, like Zach Smith, practice what Dr. Rhoads preaches.

“We're always pushing the model 'For Us By Us.' People from that neighborhood, they have a sense of community and empathy that I think you can’t have if you don’t feel: ‘Oh, that’s my cousin. That’s my friend. That’s my partner. That’s who I love.’”
Zach Smith

Smith sits down with people and hears them out. And they trust him. One time, a conversation actually helped bring in an entire pod for vaccination.

He recalls, “One of my roles that day was helping with the exit survey. And I was talking to him there — a Black person. [He was] like ... 'Should I tell other people?' And we had a conversation for probably about five or ten minutes."

Smith continues, "That gentleman called the person he lived with, because they were eligible, and they came to the vaccine site. And they were a bit hesitant, but because they went with him, they felt more comfortable. So I think a lot of the word-of-mouth and those interactions between folks aren't quite as valued as they should be.”

Umoja table.jpg
David Exumé
Volunteers and doctors at Umoja Health's pop-up vaccination site.

Dr. Rhoads is going to keep this going beyond the pandemic, on an even larger scale.

She says, "What I can see is that this model works for engaging the African-American community. And by 'this model,' I mean flipping the entire delivery system inside-out. We don't do anything indoors. We do everything outdoors, rain or shine. We're bringing the information to people rather than asking people to come get the information from us."

Just talk to someone like Demar, who says "You got people out there talking to you. Just, you know, down-to-earth. And that's what you need: down-to-earth.”

Support for this series comes from Renaissance Journalism's Equity and Health Reporting Initiative, with funding from The California Endowment. Thanks also to the Association for Continuing Education (ACE).

David Exumé (he/him/his) is a 2020-2021 Audio Academy Fellow. His reporting interests include music history, immigration, community organizing, and urban planning. He's previously worked at KCRW in Santa Monica and WPRB in Princeton.
Sonia Narang is the editor and project manager for KALW's Health & Equity series. Before that, she managed elections coverage for the station. Over the past decade, Sonia reported social justice stories from her home state of California and around the globe for PRI's The World radio program, NPR News, The Washington Post's The Lily, and more.